Eric Cantor’s Untended Fences

The House majority leader’s loss is a reminder of the old political adage: There are two ways to run — scared and unopposed.

Dave Brat, right, is congratulated by Johnny Wetlaufer after Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Richmond, Va. 
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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 12, 2014, 5 p.m.

While sur­prises are not that in­fre­quent in polit­ics, rarely is there one as shock­ing as Eric Can­tor’s primary loss to Ran­dolph-Ma­con Col­lege eco­nom­ist Dave Brat in Vir­gin­ia’s 7th Dis­trict. No House ma­jor­ity lead­er has ever be­fore lost a primary elec­tion, and Can­tor’s de­feat is the most stun­ning primary up­set of a con­gres­sion­al in­cum­bent in any­one’s memory. Pre­vi­ous top lead­er­ship losses — such as those of House Speak­er Tom Fo­ley in 1994, House Ma­jor­ity Whip John Brademas in 1980, and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Tom Daschle in 2004 — were all in gen­er­al elec­tions.

No one ever sug­ges­ted to any of us at The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port that Can­tor might ac­tu­ally lose reelec­tion. Al­though the spend­ing in the last couple of months (more than $5 mil­lion this cycle) and the harsh, even reck­less neg­at­ive ads aired by the Can­tor cam­paign in the clos­ing weeks showed it was not com­pletely asleep, his polls nev­er re­vealed that the race was tight­en­ing. 

Can­tor’s cam­paign had re­leased a poll con­duc­ted for it by John McLaugh­lin on May 27 and 28 that showed him with a 34-point lead. The pre­dicted break­down was 62 per­cent to 28 per­cent — 27 per­cent­age points too low for Brat, 17 points too gen­er­ous for Can­tor. In fair­ness, screen­ing for likely voters in a June primary is not the easi­est of chores, par­tic­u­larly in GOP primar­ies in this tea-party era. Still, the turnout was not un­usu­ally low; it was roughly double the Demo­crat­ic turnout in Vir­gin­ia’s 8th Dis­trict primary to suc­ceed Rep. Jim Mor­an and was sub­stan­tially high­er than the 2012 pres­id­en­tial primary turnout. 

With high­er turnouts, polls tend to get more ac­cur­ate, not less, and a lower turnout, if that is what McLaugh­lin ex­pec­ted, would not ne­ces­sar­ily have be­nefited Can­tor, who spent little on get-out-the-vote activ­it­ies. In short, polling doesn’t get much “wronger” than this.

Shock­ing elec­tion res­ults rarely have a single cause, and this in­stance is no ex­cep­tion. Clearly, the biggest single policy is­sue was im­mig­ra­tion, which seemed to dom­in­ate cov­er­age in the fi­nal days. Con­ser­vat­ive web­sites like The Daily Caller were pound­ing Can­tor on im­mig­ra­tion, and a rally in the clos­ing days of the cam­paign that fea­tured con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­or Laura In­gra­ham re­portedly at­trac­ted 500 people. What is in­struct­ive about this is that Can­tor’s po­s­i­tions were fairly middle-of-the-road; he didn’t em­brace com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form along the lines of the Sen­ate bill. This will serve as a warn­ing sig­nal, not only to all Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates this year but to 2016 pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls as well, that the im­mig­ra­tion is­sue hasn’t changed that much since 2012, when Mitt Rom­ney used dem­agoguery to thwart Gov. Rick Perry’s rise.

But Can­tor’s de­feat wasn’t just about im­mig­ra­tion. A heavy dose of gen­er­ic tea-party, anti-Wash­ing­ton sen­ti­ment seemed to be at work as well. Al­though Can­tor is con­ser­vat­ive by any ra­tion­al stand­ard, he is also a cer­ti­fied mem­ber of the Wash­ing­ton and Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship es­tab­lish­ment. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell suc­cess­fully dealt with some of the same dy­nam­ics in his primary, but he still must con­front this danger in the gen­er­al elec­tion. 

If a large swath of voters — dis­pro­por­tion­ately con­ser­vat­ive and Re­pub­lic­an — hates the ways of Wash­ing­ton, as well as how Con­gress does (or doesn’t) do its busi­ness, then an in­cum­bent who is one of the three or four most power­ful lead­ers can face big trouble. In short, “If we hate Con­gress, we must hate you most of all.”

And it should be noted that some of Can­tor’s ads pos­sibly con­trib­uted to his de­feat. His cam­paign un­leashed some pretty scur­ril­ous at­tacks on Brat for be­ing a “lib­er­al col­lege pro­fess­or.” Serving on a board of eco­nom­ists ad­vising state gov­ern­ment on eco­nom­ic pro­jec­tions for Vir­gin­ia while it happened to have a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor (Tim Kaine) hardly makes you a lib­er­al col­lege pro­fess­or. Such an at­tack erodes the stature and cred­ib­il­ity of the can­did­ate who spon­sors the ad; these ads come across as reck­less and des­per­ate. It’s about time we start see­ing some ac­count­ab­il­ity for some of the worst of the neg­at­ive ads that are pol­lut­ing our air­waves. I hope we see this more of­ten.

On a more found­a­tion­al level, the high­er on the to­tem poll that mem­bers of the House and Sen­ate get, and the longer they are in of­fice, the great­er the tempta­tion to take voters back home for gran­ted. Once, after an en­trenched House com­mit­tee chair­man lost reelec­tion, someone from his dis­trict men­tioned that the con­gress­man used to at­tend and cam­paign at a county fair every year, but he had stopped com­ing in re­cent years. Elec­ted of­fi­cials need to be all over their states — or else. 

Like the old polit­ic­al ad­age says, there are two ways to run: scared and un­op­posed. In­cum­bents who are tar­geted early on usu­ally have already got­ten the mes­sage. I don’t re­call ever see­ing a sur­pris­ing up­set of an in­cum­bent who had been as­sidu­ously tend­ing polit­ic­al fences and vis­it­ing with con­stitu­ents reg­u­larly. On The Bull Ele­phant blog, Vir­gin­ia tea-party act­iv­ist Jam­ie Radtke cited a meet­ing five years ago with top Can­tor ad­viser Ray Al­len, at which he re­calls the lat­ter say­ing, “Eric Can­tor will nev­er hold a town-hall meet­ing. Over my dead body! You hear me?”

Town meet­ings are in­creas­ingly pain­ful for mem­bers of Con­gress, but they do serve a pur­pose. They al­low in­cum­bents to con­nect with voters in a raw, un­filtered way.

Par­tis­an­ship and ideo­logy have be­come per­vas­ive in this town. Over a couple of meals and in­form­al ex­changes, I found Can­tor to be very bright and highly com­pet­ent, and in private very can­did. He truly un­der­stands the chal­lenges fa­cing his party in the fu­ture. 

Today, that and five bucks will get him a cup of cof­fee at Star­bucks.

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